Quebec systemic racism

Geneviève Guilbault (left) on Tout le Monde en Parle

Legault & co. play partisan politics with people’s pain

Joyce Echaquan is only the latest victim of homegrown systemic racism.

I found it incredibly hard to watch members of the Indigenous community practically imploring the Quebec government to admit that systemic racism is real on Tout le Monde en Parle Sunday night. The pain and frustration were palpable on Michèle Audet, Constant Awashish and Isabelle Picard’s faces. Instead, Minister Geneviève Guilbault chose to toe the party line and echo Premier François Legault’s tired mantra that, “while racism exists in Quebec, systemic racism is nowhere to be seen.”

Stoic and unflappable in the face of so much emotional exhaustion, Quebec’s Deputy Premier and Minister of Public Safety was content to describe systemic racism, but completely disinterested in calling it by its name, lest it be used by the government’s political opponents and Quebec bashers as ammunition and fodder for further attacks. The polite gaslighting was incredibly masterful.

GG: “It’s a racism that is present in many organizations.”

TLMEP panel: “You mean systemic racism?”

GG: No, a racism observed in the way that we do things.”

TLMEP panel: “So… systemic racism?”

GG: “No, a racism that is pernicious and must be tackled.”

TLMEP panel: “Where’s that woman with the wine?”

And, sadly, this is what it ultimately comes down to. The Quebec government’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge systemic racism is purely political and a very deliberate ideological choice. If Legault were to admit that it exists, after denying it for so long, then he would be faced with the Herculean task of having to do something about it. He would also be faced with a bunch of disgruntled Quebecers from his voting base who consider an acknowledgment of systemic racism as “radical leftist talk,” a public liability and a personal affront to our honour and reputation as the “good guys.” That undeserved reputation stems, of course, from Quebecers’ whitewashed and comforting perception as allies to Indigenous communities and not just another (gasp!) colonizing presence. There are consequences, after all, to teaching history with rose-coloured glasses on.

The ‘denial and deflection’ tour

The CAQ’s refusal to “nommer le bobo,” as we like to say in French, is nothing new. Legault has been denying systemic racism since the Quebec Liberal Party attempted to launch a province-wide consultation on the issue back in 2016. He, of course, isn’t the only one. Opposition parties immediately denounced the plan as partisan, insisting it was divisive, would feed resentment, encouraged an ideology of victimhood and “put Quebecers on trial” for electoral purposes. In other words, a bunch of white folks made it all about them again, while Indigenous communities were relegated to the corner, desperately waving to get some attention. The PQ, backed by the CAQ, demanded the commission be cancelled.

I’d like to be able to say that the Liberals showed a modicum of political courage here, since they were the ones to launch the consultation, but all of Quebec’s political parties have collectively taken turns throwing Indigenous communities under the bus. The minute the Liberals saw growing public discontent and realized it was starting to cost them politically (their loss in the Louis-Hebert by-election was a sign of more to come), they treated the commission like the hot potato that it was and folded like a cheap Dollarama lawn chair.

So, years later, Quebec’s tiresome identity politics have left us no further along on this issue. We remain in limbo and with no progress in sight. Every attempt to acknowledge and address systemic racism gets you the predictable, “But what about the federal government’s systemic racism?” replies. “Aren’t they the ones responsible for all of this?”

It’s not a contest between white people

I wouldn’t mind if Quebec pointed to the federal government as a way to foster collaboration, to finally do right by people who have been wronged for so long, but it’s only ever used as a way to absolve us of any part in this collective wrongdoing.

Have French Quebecers historically been subjected to systemic racism by the British? Of course. Is the Canadian government just as complicit in systemic racism against Indigenous communities? Of course. But what does that have to do with the price of les tomates? What does this have to do with Quebec’s very real and active role in victimizing Indigenous communities, perpetuating a system that continues to discriminate against them, and enjoying privileges in terms of decision-making power that routinely benefits only one side?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has long acknowledged that systemic racism is a reality in Canada. One can argue that this admission has done little to change anything in the way this country operates, or in the substandard living conditions of many Indigenous communities, and they would be right. But you can’t fix what you can’t acknowledge, and this is an absolute necessary first step. A step, it should be emphasized, that has clearly been requested by Indigenous communities.

Long-standing systemic racism

It’s been five years, but I’m sure many of you still remember the Radio-Canada investigative report that brought to light 37 cases of alleged police abuse in Val-d’Or. Remember how the provincial police force reacted? Not by addressing the situation, but by suing the network. They claimed it was “biased, misleading” and “created a hostile environment for officers in Val-d’Or.” During the press conference, I distinctly remember SQ Captain Guy Lapointe saying the allegations (some of which dated back 10 years) weren’t a “reflection” of the police force. They never are, are they?

Do you know what else I vividly remember? A march in solidarity. Not with the Indigenous women, but with the police officers — the ones accused of rape, sexual harassment, abuse of power. To absolutely no one’s surprise, every single case of abuse was eventually thrown out. Not a single officer was convicted. Despite the huge risk these women took to speak out against police violence in such a small community, while all the accused officers remained on duty during the investigation, there was no justice for them.

Like now, Premier Legault met with Indigenous leaders. Both the federal and the provincial governments have a long-standing tradition of performing for the cameras, saying a lot but doing little. Lip service is free, after all.

After the allegations, the Viens Commission resulted in a 520-page report that made 142 suggestions on concrete ways the provincial government could make significant improvements. Judge Jacques Viens listed social services, health services, justice, youth protection services, policing and corrections as just some of the major areas in desperate need of reforms. These are all provincial jurisdictions where discrimination is rife and embedded into the system. This is the very definition of what systemic racism is. Joyce Echaquan was its latest victim.

The only reason we’re even still talking about Joyce is because, just like George Floyd, the sheer violence of that recorded interaction forced many people deep in denial to acknowledge there is a problem. To watch healthcare providers react so nonchalantly to this woman’s distress and insult her while she lay dying, without even a hint of concern, embarrassment or remorse requires systemic bias. It requires people to operate within a system and a mind frame that allows and normalizes such deplorable treatment. This denial we’re currently seeing from the government is also systemic. Our leaders would prefer to see it as an isolated incident with isolated racist individuals, who can be quickly fired and voila… problem solved. Only it’s not isolated and it’s not solved.

Like Michèle Audet said, while supplicating Minister Guilbault on Sunday, “You have the power. Be brave.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to a party that so often governs by polls and Facebook comments, that bravery will only appear when it’s politically expeditious. Until then, Indigenous communities have once again been left to fend for themselves. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.